1971, a secret analysis dubbed The Pentagon Papers that was spearheaded by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, analysing the war effort against Vietnam and the US human cost of sustaining the war was leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a researcher on the project. The Washington Post, a modest newspaper title somewhat seem floundering, is being considered to be put on the stock exchange by its owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited ownership following the death of her father then subsequent suicide of her husband of whom was originally handed the reigns. In a world ruled by men, her status is largely disrespected by her advisors. Even a casual meeting with her employee and editor of the paper Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) suggests that Bradlee is fearless of her, scolding her for branding her ringless finger in front of him, which appears to be a bit of a sore point for him.
When The New York Times prints an expose of the leak, The Washington Post appear out of the game and too late to lead the charge. But when President Nixon and the US Government protest the leak with a court order, Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down an old friend who might be a potential source, who happens to be Daniel Ellsberg. Getting their hands on the full papers, Bradlee plans on going gung-ho wihe th publishing the papers. But when Nixon goes after them, Bradlee and those associated with reporting are faced with the prospect of being put on trial for treason, including Katherine Graham who has the final say. With that threat not being monumental enough, Katherine Jay must also contend with the threat of investors vetoing their investment via a contractual clause upon The Washington Post being put on the stock exchange, putting the paper in financial jeopardy.
Spielberg was apparently knee deep in post production working on Ready Player One, when presented with the opportunity to direct The Post, written by young screenwriter Liz Hannah and couldn’t turn it down, for probably its obvious Oscar bait potential, with the script giving a further sprucing from Josh Singer who penned the similar themed Spotlight. And because so, managed to make the film in a nine month turn around that is almost staggering giving it being a period piece. Giving this turnaround, it’s hard to say whether if giving more time whether The Post could have been a better effort from Spielberg, as despite the critical fan fare, The Post feels as riveting as a 30mph drive through a small New England town. The film doesn’t really show it’s teeth until it finally gets it’s hands on the papers and it’s only at this point that Meryl Streep is at her finest. There’s plenty on the line but it just doesn’t hit the heights that Spielberg used to manage in his prime. Straight from the off with the first scene being set in Vietnam, the backing track of Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival feels like a cliché and robs the scenes of conflict of any sense of horror or coldness. Equally the score by John Williams feels over egged, attempting to add more tension in scenes when probably minimalism may have created a more appropriate ambience. Spielberg’s insistence on using film instead of digital is admirable, but it makes the film look warm rather than gritty, potentially detriment to the call of maintaining film stock in the industry. The ensemble cast of recognisable faces only serves to distract savvy audiences and potentially to disappoint those hoping for a star turn from lesser known faces, with many parts just feeling like pointless cameos, Michael Stuhlberg, Alison Brie, Stark Sands, David Cross, Jesse Plemons, Sarah Paulson, all great talents but forgettable in this film, although Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts do stand-out.
The strength behind the film is that it equally serves as a film that exemplifies female empowerment in a period dominated by men in power, the first time we see Katherine Jay enter a room full of men feels chilling and abnormal, whilst also being a film that emphasises the role a free press to hold governments to account in society, both discourses seemingly more relevant than ever it may seem. I can’t help but feel that I would have been more enthralled by the idea that Aaron Sorkin could have written something around this story set between getting the papers and publishing it. Spielberg earned his legendary status long ago but increasingly I question his relevance as a director now that is able to produce something that stands among his past glories.